Jeff Bennett is Oklahoma Christian's associate dean of students and an assistant track and field coach at the school.
Forty years ago, he was living the Olympic dream, competing for the U.S. in the decathlon at the 1972 Games in Munich. Bennett narrowly missed winning a medal, finishing a close fourth at those games, which were marred by tragedy when terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
A four-time NAIA All-American and a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame, Bennett still holds the OC records in the 400 hurdles and decathlon.
Vinita was small-town America. I was raised by my grandmother. We were actually on welfare, so we didn't have a whole lot.
Had a lot of good friends and did a lot of running around town. It was back in a time when on a summer day you could get up in the morning and go out in the woods and just kind of squirrel around and they didn't have to worry about you.
Didn't go a lot of places, but as I recall, it was a pretty decent childhood growing up in a small town.
My relationship with my grandmother was very good. She took the best care of us that she could. She never got to see me run, her health wasn't too good. But she was very supportive.
I remember watching the 1960 Olympics and they had a couple of people pole vaulting. So I decided I wanted to be a pole vaulter. Being the industrious kids that we were, we got an old mattress somebody had discarded for a pit. Got some two-by-fours and put nails in them for standards and stuck them in the ground for the box. And we got a piece of antenna pole that was 6- or 7-feet long and started jumping out on the side of the house.
In the ninth grade, I went out for track and became our pole vaulter. Along the way, I learned how to hurdle and long jump. And that's kind of how it started.
When I got to college at Oklahoma Christian, I was one of those busy guys who before practice, I was throwing the shot put or doing something. When I got through with my workout, I might be over trying to high jump or checking on the discus or just kind of piddling.
Coach Ray Vaughn Sr., who was my coach, noticed that I gravitated to all the different events. He suggested that if I'd like to, there was actually an event, decathlon, where I could do all those things. I was all for it. It worked out, that's all I can say.
I graduated from college, got a job teaching in Midwest City, and two weeks in I was drafted into the Army in 1970.
When I got drafted, I was thinking Vietnam. But I knew they had an Army track team. And I knew they looked for athletes that were on a national level. Since I had won the NAIA decathlon twice, I figured I would be picked up on that team, once they got the information.
It ended up being a blessing. I was going to have to try to teach school, try to work out, pay my way to meets that were out on the West Coast or whatever. So the Army became my vehicle for all of that.
Once I decided to pursue the Olympics back in 1968, my goal was to make the team. But once I saw the scores, I was in already in position, I just wanted to get on the medal stand. That was my Olympic goal.
As it worked out, I ended up being like 10 points out of third place.
At the time, there were some restless nights spent thinking about how to make 10 more points.
The experience was wonderful. I would have liked to have had a medal, that didn't happen, but that doesn't detract from the fact that I was able to make the team and was No. 4 in the world that year. It's been a wonderful thing.
And it's enabled me to speak to a number of young people about goals and objectives and working toward something. So it's been a good thing.
The two years previous to making the team, I was either No. 1 or No. 2 in the U.S. So there was a lot of pressure there to perform well in the trials. Making the team was like a weight being lifted. I was really excited to be there and I wanted to perform well, but I felt like the big goal had been accomplished just making the team.
It was like a roller coaster for a couple of days. You think about all those people who were killed. And there was a period where you don't know whether the Olympics are going to go on or not. And thoughts go through your head about, ‘I worked so hard to get here, my event hasn't started yet, if they call it off I may not ever get a chance like this again.'
There were a lot of emotions like that.
When they decided to continue, there was a sense of relief. The thought process was that if they cancel the games, it would really be a positive gain for the terrorists. And they didn't want that to happen.
Considering all that, I think they did the right thing. And in that regard, everything worked out. But it was kind of tense for a while.
I wasn't frightened frightened, because by the time we found out about it, I think they probably had everything under control and they had the terrorists separated from us.
The thing that changed the atmosphere was the fact that where they once had people with little badges at the gates, they had soldiers with automatic weapons.
I think because that happened, that tragedy sort of took center stage even when the Games were going on. All the interviews and the stories after, there were always questions about that. A lot of the human interest stories and the things they do now were overshadowed by the tragedy.
It was a tremendous experience to be around the athletes from other countries, people you read about in the newspaper and saw on television. To be in that atmosphere and be able to visit with them and socialize, there is nothing like that for a person in track and field. To me, it was like a kid in a candy store type thing. I took as much of it in as I could.
It's very exciting to watch the Olympics now. In fact, I spend way too many hours in front of the TV.
It's just a joy to be able to see that and see what people are doing today. And to see how much better they've gotten. And at the same time, to know that I was a part of that.
OC is like home. It's great being back. The atmosphere is really good. There's a lot of nice people to work with. I just enjoy being at my alma mater and it allows me to pass along some things to the kids today.